One morning back in early August, Riverdale Baptist girls’ basketball Coach Mike Bozeman gathered his team in the lobby of the Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, Va. The Crusaders are consistently one of the best teams in the Washington area, if not the country, and they were expected to do well in this tournament featuring some of the region’s strongest schools.
But before they took the court, Bozeman wanted his players to each grab a sheet of paper and write down three things about themselves — two of them true and one false.
Yes, before Riverdale Baptist could play the first game of a season that carried national title hopes, it had to play an icebreaker.
Since that August tournament, Riverdale’s season has been an experiment in how quickly a great high school basketball team can unify. Bozeman is in his first year at the Upper Marlboro, Md., private school, and his roster features eight transfer students.
Transfers have been common in the independent private school circuit for years, but eight in one season is unprecedented. The former George Washington University women’s coach had a lot of work to do in starting his new job, and very little of it had to do with coaching technique or X’s and O’s.
“Took a long minute,” Bozeman said of the adjustment process. “I’ve never ever experienced as much drama with any basketball team I’ve had.”
After a recent Thursday practice at Crusader Fieldhouse, five months after two truths and a lie, the team played another game: knockout. The Crusaders were leaving for two weekend games in New York the next day, and the gym was buzzing with teenage goofiness.
As the line in the shooting contest got shorter, players shrieked at the excitement. Shakira Austin, the No. 3 player in the Class of 2018 and a Maryland commit, fell to the floor in mock devastation. Honesty Scott-Grayson, another top 20 recruit who is committed to Baylor, knocked down shot after shot from the top of the key. Penn State recruit Lauren Ebo, one of three players remaining from last year’s team, ran around with a blue and gold Riverdale Baptist tie wrapped around her head.
Bozeman decided to get back into coaching last year, taking the Riverdale job in April and scouting players on the local AAU circuit soon after.
“I knew that if I made a return to the high school side, I would get some interest on transfers,” Bozeman said. “But it surprised me how quickly it came together.”
As Bozeman added new players, much of last year’s roster sensed a regime change and scattered to other area schools, opening the door for a full-on overhaul.
This kind of team-building isn’t widely accepted on the high school level, where most coaches prefer the old-school process of years-long player development. Bozeman and his new roster have drawn some murmurs from basketball figures who view the situation as the latest product of a pervasive and dangerous transfer culture.
“It’s a hot mess,” said one local coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about another team. “Girls are jumping around like wildfire because the grass is always greener somewhere else. And is there any player development? No. For the independent private schools, it’s especially bad, because there are no checks and balances.”
As the season has progressed, Bozeman and his players have figured out how to co-exist on and off the court. Led by Austin (15.9 points per game), Scott-Grayson (13.2) and National Christian transfer Elizabeth Martino (11.2), the Crusaders are undefeated against area teams and 18-4 overall, ranking No. 3 in The Post’s Top 20. They won their bracket at the ultracompetitive Title IX Classic in the District and will be contenders in upcoming Capital Beltway League and independent national championship events.
“We just took our time with it,” Scott-Grayson said. “Got to know each other. Spent time trying to jell.”
One payoff from their successful experiment came Jan. 16 when the McDonald’s all-Americans were announced. The Crusaders had three players nominated, and two of them — Austin and Scott-Grayson — were expected to make the East team.
An Instagram video of the unveiling opens with a handful of players gathered around a television in their principal’s office. The East is announced, and Austin is on it. The camera turns to her, but her face doesn’t change as she searches for Scott-Grayson’s name. It’s not there. Her eyes drop. Scott-Grayson is silent.
“She knew how I was feeling, because I told her it was my dream to be a McDonald’s all-American since I was in the third grade,” Scott-Grayson said.
But then ESPN reveals the West team. As it turns out, Riverdale Baptist is one of only two girls’ teams in the country to get two players into the game, so they’ve been split up. The whole room celebrates as Scott-Grayson’s name appears.
Scott-Grayson watched the video and saw Austin’s reaction, and was struck by the authenticity of the moment. “It was nice to watch,” she said. “A teammate that genuinely cared.”